Our trek through the major theories of political obligation continues as we now move on to the association account.
It’s probably easiest to think of association theory as the “We’re all Americans” version of obligation. If you live in the United States, you’re an American, meaning you’re part of this thing called America, which is both the collection of all citizens and bigger than all of us. And being an American means respecting and obeying America’s institutions, including its laws.
This sets association apart from the other theories we’ve looked at. With fair play and gratitude, for instance, political obligations arise because of something we’ve done—whether accepting benefits or voluntarily participating in a cooperative scheme. With association, the obligations flow from who we are. Association theorists thus often draw parallels between country and family. As a father, I have obligations toward my daughter not because of some agreement we entered into or because I gained in some way from her. I have obligations to her because I am her father. Association simply applies this same sort of thinking to the state. Having political obligations is just part of what it means to be a member of the community. Given that our membership isn’t something most of us chose (we were instead born into it), our political obligations don’t flow from our choices, either.
This account depends on a number of assumptions, none of them particularly plausible. First, we very likely do have obligations arising from our role in our families, among our friends, or even in our very local community. But it’s not at all clear that the state is an association of a kind with those others. I don’t have a relationship with most Americans—let alone with Congress, the President, and the administrative agencies—that in any way parallels the relationship I have with my wife, my daughter, my parents, my friends, and my neighbors. In fact, when the state does try to act as if such a relationship exists (take Michelle Obama’s call that we all sign a father’s day card for her husband), it comes off as almost creepy.
Second, if political obligations flow entirely from community standards (“You’re an American, and Americans support their government.”) then it seems they bind us to the state no matter how bad it is. We might luck into a state that’s reasonably just, but we might just as easily have found ourselves politically obligated to turn over our peers to Stalin or to send Jews to the gas chambers. If the response is that of course you can’t be politically obligated to do that, then we’ve introduced moral standards outside of the association—and why can’t those moral standards include a prohibition on being obligated to a state involuntarily? It seems that, no matter what, we want some way to become unobligated to obey the state if the state grows bad enough. And this opting out shouldn’t be limited to “Love it or leave it.” For why, if the government behaves sufficiently unjustly so as to lose my obedience, should I also be forced to abandon my (true) community of my family, friends, and neighbors?
I don’t want to completely dismiss the strong feeling many of us have that we are, in fact, obligated to obey our government and that those obligations arise from it being the government of our country. The association theory matches quite well the unstated reasoning that leads most citizens to respect the will of the state. But those feelings by themselves don’t settle the issue. We might, after all, be mistaken in our emotion. And, at the very least, we want to leave open the option to back out of our obligations should the government change sufficiently that it no longer represents the America we’re a part of.
Absent any compelling argument for general political obligations (of the sort to which traditional theorists aspired), and absent any compelling argument for the independent binding power of local rules requiring obedience and support (of the sort to which proponents of the normative independence thesis aspire), it seems plausible to dismiss as a kind of false consciousness our feelings of obligation toward our countries of birth or residence. Of course we identify ourselves with “our” countries, “our” governments, and “our” fellow citizens. We have typically been taught from birth to do so, have typically spent our lives in a particular political culture, have been identified with a particular community by those outside our own (for purposes of praise or blame, say), and have associated with and become used to our own ways. That I might feel shame or pride at the acts of my countrymen (or that I might vote in elections and obey the law) is hardly surprising under these conditions. But none of this identification (along with its accompanying feelings of obligation) none of these ways of speaking and acting-seems, considered by itself, in any way inconsistent with denying that we are morally bound by political obligations to our countries of residence.
The appearance of authority must never be mistaken for the real thing.
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The fair play theory of political obligation political obligation goes as follows: We’re all in this together. Every one of us got where we are because of the sacrifices and tax dollars of those who came before. We benefit from the group endeavor that is government and so, when the time comes, it’s only right that we pay our fair share, both by cutting a check to the IRS and not mucking the whole thing up by disobeying laws.
Fair play’s probably the most common argument of the five I discuss in this series. It’s the sort of obligation-creating situation we’ve all encountered. The neighborhood collects money for a playground. If you enjoy it, you should pitch in. Your church group hosts a potlatch. If you plan to eat, you should bring something to share.
To put it more formally, if we benefit from a cooperative scheme, we need to abide by its rules or else we’re free-riding. Here’s H. L. A. Hart’s useful capsule version from his 1955 essay, “Are There Any Natural Rights?”:
When a number of persons conduct any joint enterprise according to rules and thus restrict their liberty, those who have submitted to those restrictions when required have a right to a similar submission from those who have benefited by their submission.
In Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Robert Nozick sets out an example: Imagine that your neighbors have all agreed to use the town’s public address system as an entertainment outlet. Each day, a new person spends several hours broadcasting music, amusing stories, and community news. You don’t actively seek out these broadcasts, but because you live in the neighborhood and it’s summer, so you’re often outside or have your windows open, and you hear quite a lot of it. Most days, the programming’s pleasant enough and, in some case, you enjoy it greatly.
Then your day comes around. Clearly you’ve benefited in some way from this cooperative scheme, and those benefits came via sacrifices made by your neighbors (they gave up their time to run the system). So are you obligated to pick out old records, polish off your anecdotes, and spend the day entertaining your peers?
Whether you are will depend an awful lot on what choice you had in benefiting. If your neighbors, counter to your wishes, decide to form a mob and wander from house to house cleaning cars, and if they come in the middle of the night or when you’re out of town and clean your car, it’s difficult to see how this would obligate you to become part of the car-cleaning mob yourself.
For fair play to create obligations, the benefits must be accepted. They can’t merely be received. If you never had a choice about rejecting the benefit, how can you possibly be compelled to repay it? In the public address example above, it’s clear you as the listener received the broadcast entertainment, but not at all clear you accepted it. For if you hadn’t wanted to hear the broadcasts, how would you have avoided them? Closed all your windows? Never gone outside?
With this in mind, the issue for fair play and political obligations becomes one of whether state benefits are typically accepted or just received. Do we have a choice about accepting the services our tax dollars pay for? What would be involved in avoiding them if we decide we don’t want to contribute to this particular cooperative scheme?
Another problem has to do with the kind of obligations fair play creates. It may be true that benefiting from the sacrifices of my neighbors and fellow citizens means I’m obligated to sacrifice similarly on their behalf. But does this moral obligation rise to a political obligation? Do I owe it to the state–or just to my fellow citizens? Because we can readily imagine a situation where, while my peers benefited me by paying taxes, I’d benefit them more (and thus improve the whole cooperative scheme to a greater degree) if I do something other than pay taxes. I might offer my services as a carpenter. Or take the time now afforded me because of state programs to invent a cure for cancer.
In short, even if fair play suffices to create obligations, it remains an open question whether it creates political obligations and whether the obligations it creates must only be fulfilled by paying taxes and obeying the law. It remains an open question, in other words, whether fair play applies to the state.
That’s a question I’ll explore next time.
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